Sample Expo Abstracts


dpNSOM:  A Novel Nanoscale Refractive Index Measurement Technique

To diagnose and treat cancers at an early stage, research focuses on early detection using imaging as well as techniques to characterize cells, structures, and molecules.  Optical microscopy is a widely used technique to analyze cell structure.  However, the resolution of conventional optical microscopy is diffraction-limited.  This poses a roadblock to detecting cancer at an early stage, as studies have indicated that nanoarchitectural changes, significantly smaller than the diffraction limit, precede histologically noticeable events such as dysplasia.  These changes are invisible to optical microscopy techniques that are currently considered the gold-standard.  My research is aimed at demolishing this roadblock.  I am using a near-field scanning optical microscope, NSOM, to develop a novel means to quantify optical refractive indices within biological cells.  Probing in the depth direction, depth probing NSOM, dpNSOM, has a resolution of 50 nm or finer, fully one order-of-magnitude below the diffraction limit.  The techniques that I am developing could be used to analyze cells that are potentially in the earliest stages of cancer.  From the basic-science perspective, the data obtained in this manner would serve to increase basic knowledge of fundamental nanoarchitectural changes in a cell that accompany cancer progression.  From the public health perspective, the techniques I am developing would potentially facilitate a robust and life saving cancer screening methodology.

Partial Urinary Bladder Regeneration Utilizing Mesenchymal Stem Cells Seeded onto an Elastomeric Thin Film

The need for a novel bladder augmentation model is long overdue. Patients with dysfunctional neurogenic bladders, such as those with spina bifida, undergo extensive surgery to augment the bladder in order to increase the capacity to hold urine. Yet this surgical intervention does not improve bladder function as urodynamics of the augmented bladder remain unchanged. This study takes advantage of the plasticity of bone marrow derived stem cells and the elasticity of recently developed biomaterials towards bladder regeneration efforts. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs) and poly(1,8-octanediol-co-citrate) thin films (POCfs) were evaluated. MSCs demonstrated a high viability and proliferation capacity in vitro and when cultured on POCfs, and even expressed contractile proteins in an undifferentiated state akin to bladder smooth muscle cells (SMCs). To replicate the bladder augmentation surgery, MSCs seeded onto POCfs were implanted into a nude rat bladder, resulting in robust MSCs growthin vivo. MSCs post-implantation had an enhanced contractile protein expression as well. This protein profile allowed for carbachol-induced in vitro contraction, clearly confirming MSC candidacy in bladder smooth muscle regeneration. EPCs, when cultured in a CAM model, developed branched vasculature. Additionally, ureteral SMCs (spared of neurogenic pathology) had a high proliferation capacity and expressed contractile proteins found in SMCs as well. These findings suggest that POCfs cradle the growth of MSCs and EPCs, developing into the smooth muscle and vascular network of the bladder wall, respectively. This novel approach to bladder reconstruction may contribute towards eradicating the need for self-catheterization and improving bladder functionality in spina bifida patients.

Bioavailability of Mercury in Aquatic Systems

Inorganic mercury is released directly and indirectly to the environments as part of several industrial processes such as coal burning. In the natural environment, anaerobic organisms in aquatic systems transform the inorganic mercury to methylmercury through a process called methylation. Methylmercury is a toxin that bioaccumulates in the aquatic food chain, with high concentrations found in many species of fish that humans consume. Ingested methylmercury is readily and completely absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract and transported across the blood-brain barrier and the placenta. Therefore, from both and environmental and public health perspective, this organometallic compound has become an alarming pollutant.  In order for methylation to occur, inorganic mercury must first be bioavailable—able to enter a cell by passing through the cell membrane. Our research investigates how the bioavailability of mercury changes in the presence of various anthropogenic ligands and natural complexants, including ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, nitrilotriacetic acid, cysteine, humic acid, and citrate. Bioavailability was measured via bioluminescence assays performed on a genetically engineered whole cell mercury bioreporter (Escherichia.Coli ARL1 with merR::luxCDABE fusion). Our results show that cellular mercury uptake is greatly enhanced in the presence of the amino acid cysteine (10-2 µM – 10-4 µM levels), suggesting that a mercury-cysteine complex forms to facilitate the cross-membrane transfer. Meanwhile, mercury uptake is greatly inhibited in the presence of citrate (10-2 µM levels). Therefore, because the bioavailability of mercury changes by complexing to ligands, microbial methylations of mercury will strongly depend on the composition and quality of an aquatic system.


The Bearded Woman on the Cross: St. Ontcommer and Medieval Popular Piety

According to legend, St. Ontcommer was a young princess of Portugal who renounced paganism and refused to marry.  When God sent her a full beard to help her escape a suitor, her own father had her crucified in anger.  In northern Europe during the late Middle Ages, versions of this legend circulated widely and hundreds of works of devotional art were dedicated to the androgynous virgin saint.  In over five centuries since her legend first emerged, the bearded woman on the cross has been recognized as the patron saint of prisoners, the sick and dying, soldiers, fertility, childbirth, livestock, musicians, bakers, travelers, marriage, incest survivors, and women seeking escape from bad relationships. This paper investigates the emergence of the cult of St. Ontcommer, seeking to explain the significance of this seemingly unusual popular figure within her own late-medieval context.  I use art and textual evidence to show that the cult of St. Ontcommer became widespread in part because she encompassed both an ideal of bodily women’s spirituality and a tendency towards the feminization of Christ important to art and literature of the later Middle Ages.  Additionally, her ambiguous representation suggests multiple possibilities for access to the divine, allowing her to serve as an adaptable and powerful symbol to her diverse supplicants.  Finally, her transgression of boundaries between male and female, “disfigured” and transcendent, reflects both the fluidity and the paradox important to late medieval conceptions of gender and the body, particularly as they apply to perceptions of the holy.

Space Invaders: Street Art, Site-specificity, and the Contest for Urban Space

Street artists appropriate urban space for aesthetic interventions, acts that imply opposition to the prescribed structures and pathways of the city.  Analyzing the works of Vhils and Banksy, two prominent street artists who practice in London, I examine the ways in which street art engages the city as a site of critical inquiry, a space to be celebrated and interrogated, fought for and fought.  In making artworks that critique the city from within its streets, these artists make visible hidden aspects of the urban condition: the economic and political forces that shape urban space and prescribe its uses; the populations of city dwellers who are subjected to the structuring of urban space and the everyday experience of urban living; and the possibility of alternative uses of urban space—the ways in which spatial structures and strictures can be subverted by urban spatial interventions.  Informed by field research and building upon urban spatial theory and models of site-specific art making, I argue that the visual interventions of street art encourage a rethinking of urban space by those who occupy it but have little influence over its production.  Making art that confronts the forces of urban spatial structuring in the space of the city, these artists not only expose the city to the mechanisms of its own contentious production, but site it as ground zero of the contest over the control of urban space.

Mirrored Malinches: Gender and Geopolitics in Lone Star and Their Dogs Came with Them

La Malinche became the Indian translator for Hernán Cortés and the Spanish Conquistadors after they arrived in Mexico in the early sixteenth century. Because of her role as both translator for the Spanish and as Cortés’s concubine, La Malinche has traditionally been considered a traitorous figure in Mexican and Chicano/a culture. Chicana feminists have attempted since the 1970s to redeem the figure of La Malinche by framing her as a symbol of female agency oppressed by Chicano nationalist patriarchy. My thesis analyzes two fictional works – the film Lone Star by John Sayles and the novel Their Dogs Came with Themby Helena María Viramontes. Both works use doubled representations of La Malinche to reflect the pervasive misogyny of Chicano nationalism and broader American society. I argue that that these two works situate discussions of gender within a broader geopolitical context that is often ignored by Chicana authors referring to La Malinche. As a woman who translated between languages and symbolically blended the races of indigenous Amerindians and Europeans by bearing Cortés’s child, La Malinche crossed ethnic and political borders. The unstable identity boundaries which these works depicts between the doubled Malinche figures function as a metaphor for other permeable boundaries, such as those between Mexico and the United States and between racially segregated communities in the United States.  By analyzing how both works use La Malinche to critique traditional understandings of both gender and geopolitics, I aim to contribute to an emancipatory politics of literary interpretation that simultaneously addresses gender oppression and divisions between racial, ethnic, and national groups.


The Effects of Chinese Commercial Investment on Governance in African States 

Chinese economic engagement with African states has expanded rapidly throughout the past decade via trade, foreign direct investment, loans, and direct development financing. This project explores theories of governance in modern Africa and investigates the effects of Chinese commercial investment on governance in African states. I use the cases of Angola and Ethiopia in order to evaluate how regime type, degree of institutionalization, sector of investment, and financial mechanisms associated with Chinese projects affect African governance. Even if the types of financing options employed by China create growth or align with positive development indicators, there are still effects on governance that may cause a perpetuation of the same economic problems financing aims to fix. My research indicates that instead of shrinking the African state, increasing Chinese commercial investment has the effect of reinforcing executive authority and patrimonial structures of governance that allow the state to thrive off the co-option of the private sphere. In a region where presidential power is increasingly consolidated by strong executives, Chinese investment may be supporting elements of informal governance which allow the perpetuation of patrimonial tendencies and political patronage networks.

The Scientific Gender Gap: Gender Bias in Facial Inferences that Predict Scientific Influence

Although the number of female scientists earning graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields has increased steadily in the past 15 years, the gender gap in higher echelons of science has remained.  What psychological factors underlie the scientific gender gap at the highest levels of STEM fields?  From politics to business, facial appearance has been shown to play a pivotal role in predicting an individual’s success.  In this study we examined the possibility that facial appearance may contribute to scientific success and, in particular, to a gender gap in scientific influence as measured by h index.  Sixty Caucasian American undergraduate students viewed 110 grayscale facial photographs (55 females) of professors at the top five STEM departments.  Participants viewed each face for a brief moment and rated how approachable, attractive, competent, and dominant the face seemed on a 7-point scale.  Across all faces, scientific age (year of PhD) was a positive predictor of h index.  For female scientists, perceived approachability and dominance of facial appearance were negative predictors of h index, whereas for male scientists, facial inferences did not predict scientific influence—there were no significant predictors of facial appearance in predicting h index for men.  The follow-up study revealed that the significant predictors of scientific influence for female professors observed in the initial study were unique to the scientists at the top five institutions.  These results indicate that shallow decision heuristics, such as trait inferences made from the face, play an important role in scientific influence and may contribute to the perseverance of gender gap at the highest levels of STEM fields.

Living in Between: How Rural to Rural Migrants Navigate Transnational Lives

Previous literature on transnational migration has studied migrants moving to urban centers in the United States. This study looks at a population we’ve missed: those who travel to rural receiving regions. The major forces that previous researchers have argued maintain transnational contact are political, religious and social organizations that are all but nonexistent for the migrants arriving in rural regions. This study explores the nuances of transnational life when it is anchored in rural areas of both the sending and receiving countries. Findings are based on a qualitative study of five immigrant families living in rural Western New York and their relatives in San Juan Mixtepec, a small indigenous community in Oaxaca, Mexico. The nature of rural life means people are isolated. No hometown organization helps Mixtepec migrants maintain contact with each other or anyone back home, and Oaxacan politicians do not worry about reaching out to a Western New York contingent of citizens. Furthermore, there are few options for religious involvement in Spanish and no opportunities to worship in Mixteco. Yet these immigrants still live transnational lives, maintaining ties to their home and culture through personal agency, not institutional support. Findings in this study fill a hole in our knowledge of transnational migration by focusing on rural to rural migrants. A revision of theory is necessary with a focus on non-institutional maintenance of transnational ties to fully understand the lived experience of these migrants, a population that comprises almost the entirety of the foreign farmworker population.


Streamlined View of the Issues and Solutions Available in Relation to America's Shortage of Primary Care Physicians

Concern about the shortage of primary care physicians in America has been raised since the 1960s. Although many different tools have been implemented since then and now, there is still a growing shortage of primary care physicians (PCP). This review will examine the facts that surround the key issues as to why there is a PCP shortage. Those key issues include less medical students seeking primary care residencies and an ever-present disparity between primary care and specialization compensation. Furthermore, this review will explore some of the proposed solutions to alleviate the shortage, which include what medical schools can do to increase the number of PCPs as well as what innovations can be utilized to combat the shortage.

False Synonyms: A Study on the Relationship Between Leadership and Management

In the world today there are individuals considered to be leaders and other considered managers, but what are the major differences between the two and how do they affect businesses today?  This project was completed by analyzing thirteen online, academic sources and two print sources.  Additionally two interviews with retail managers were conducted to gain insight on how managers view the relationship between the two and what trends they saw in management and leadership in their careers.  Leadership and management are closely related and it is impossible for a business to succeed without both.  However, there is an emerging trend in business where instead of looking at the two as separate “positions” businesses are looking to combine the two and hire “managing leaders” who are able to complete the tasks of both managers and leaders successfully.  This is important for both college students and business professionals to note because instead of being skilled as just a manager or a leader they will need to be able to display skills in both leadership and management.


Training College Students to Relay Nanotechnology Information to Science Museum Guests

College students can be an enormous asset to a science museum such as the McWane Science Center when it comes to promoting the learning of museum guests. Students may be able to relay information to the guests in a more effective way. The encounter will not only benefit guests by stimulating learning of science, but will also benefit the college students by boosting communication skills and allowing the students to gain experience in presenting  and explaining various scientific topics to a broad audience. In this experiment, 12 UAB Honors College students first attended 2 training sessions in which they learned how to effectively interact with guests of the museum and conduct minor science tutorials. Next, the students attended a final session to familiarize them with the NanoDays 2013 exhibit. NanoDays combines fun hands-on activities with presentations on current research.  After training, the students were permitted to come to the museum for several weeks and create learning experiences for both children and adults. The effectiveness of the trained students will be assessed by providing 75 guests with surveys in which they give feedback on their learning experience. The surveys will ask several questions that gauge how guests feel about the presentation given by the student. In the end, the surveys will assess the effectiveness in training college students to convey scientific information to museum guests. Surveys completed by the trained students will also analyze the potential benefits to the students of participating in such experiences.

Seed to Plate: Mobile Ethnic Garden Pilot Program

There is a rise in obesity among children and teens in the U.S.   It is a multi-faceted problem that interacts with a child’s health, social well-being, and math performance.  This project proposed a paradigm shift in the educational system by equipping students to become agents of their own change and by reversing a generation of non-cookers.   As a result, STEM education, self-esteem exercises, and cultural understanding were the cornerstone of the program’s curriculum.  The 2012-2013 pilot program contained six lesson plans and educated the 3rd grade students at Morris Elementary, a Title I school in Huntsville, Alabama.  To help the whole child develop a balanced foundational wheel of life, students were taught the importance of math and science excellence, nutritional wellness, culturally sensitive cooking and healthy habits, positive social interactions and cultural awareness; all while using the educational techniques of inductive-learning, hands-on learning and critical thinking.  Each lesson plan contained four 20-minute stations (Garden, Kitchen, Kitchen Table, and Culture) that met the Math National Common Core Standards and National Science Education Standards.   In addition, a self-made mobile garden was used as a creative, hands-on, interactive teaching tool; which allowed students to observe and learn concepts ranging from herbs and vegetables to shapes and fractions.  Based on interviews, surveys, and field observations, students showed high motivation to learn and engage in the lesson, and demonstrated accountability for their own education.  This holistic approach to teaching can provide a scalable, replicable, model that can be implemented into all schools across the nation.

*adapted from Northwestern University